News and Tribune

January 17, 2014

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Sycamores hoping to put dent into Shockers’ mantra


TERRE HAUTE — It started as a motivational tactic from a former great, became a rallying cry, a Twitter hashtag, and finally, a marketing slogan.

Play Angry — the mantra by which the undefeated Wichita State’s men’s basketball team has been defined in its whirlwind of success — took on a life of its own.

Few calling cards have so aptly fit a team. Led by coach Gregg Marshall — whose craftiness as a coach is matched by his willingness to let WSU wear their hearts on their sleeves with chips firmly imbedded on shoulders — the Shockers rode Play Angry all the way to the first Final Four appearance for a Missouri Valley Conference team since Indiana State did it in 1979.

Play Angry played very well for a team that beat Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State as it blazed a path to the Final Four that shocked (no pun intended) everyone but themselves.

WSU fans embraced it completely as it served as a defiant bit of in-your-face crow for doubters to feast on as the Shockers knocked off one team after another.

The motto — for all of the sass that it implies — hides the fact that it served well as a point of focus for the Shockers. They used a tactic which could have derailed other teams and made it their own.

Play Angry began with a speech former WSU great Antoine Carr made to the Shockers during the 2012-13 season. During WSU’s NCAA Tournament run, it entered the lexicon of fans and national media types alike and became a phenomenon.

Since then, WSU fans identify themselves on Twitter (and elsewhere) with the #PlayAngry hashtag. WSU’s athletic department uses it heavily in their marketing. WSU titled their 2013 season highlight video Play Angry. In a game at Wichita’s downtown Intrust Arena in December against Tennessee, Play Angry was displayed on the baseline as part of the WSU paint scheme. On WSU’s website, fans are urged to “Vote Angry” as Marshall tries to raise money in an ESPN coaches charity challenge.

Marshall has said Play Angry means taking advantage of opportunities in life. That’s what’s in the offing for the Sycamores on Saturday.

ISU goes into the homeland of Play Angry at 4 p.m. on Saturday as it engages the fifth-ranked Shockers in a summit meeting of the MVC’s two powerhouse programs. The matchup between WSU (18-0, 5-0) and ISU (14-3, 5-0) — both of whom have opened a two-game gap over the rest of the league — is the game of the season so far in the MVC, and arguably, ISU’s biggest regular season game since the Sycamores’ MVC title season in 2000.

While the Sycamores don’t Play Angry, they respect it. They’ve watched from afar what WSU has done and know how effective Play Angry has been.

“I think you always have to come out with some anger, with a chip on your shoulder, but you have to stay composed. You can’t let it get you out of control. That’s something they do a great job of. They’re aggressive, but they’re always in control at the same time. It’s hard to get those two things to work together, but Wichita State’s found that groove,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.

ISU coach Greg Lansing hasn’t used slogans as a head coach. When asked if he’s ever employed one, the closest he said he’s come is “I’ve got your six” — a phrase that originated in military aviation as is meant as a show of support for your teammates. He tries to instill that in the Sycamores.

Could ISU play angry? It depends on how one interprets it.

“I think as long as you stay aggressive. I think that’s when we play our best. If we play angry that way, we can win,” ISU forward Justin Gant said.

Other Sycamores weren’t as sure.

“They’ve got their way and it’s worked great for them. I don’t think we play angry so much. Our motor is different. We just want to get better everyday. That’s what the coaches preach everyday. For us? This is an opportunity to get better. As a competitor, this is what you ask for and to see how you respond,” ISU swingman Manny Arop said.

If WSU wanted to conjure Play Angry, Saturday’s game provides a good cause besides the conference implications at stake. ISU defeated WSU 68-55 at Charles Koch Arena on Jan. 29, 2013. It’s the last loss the Shockers suffered in their raucous home arena.

Odum downplayed that win and knows it can’t be in ISU’s minds when they go back on Saturday.

“We can’t think about what happened last year. It might be in their minds, but it can’t be in ours. We know it’s going to be tough. They’ll be ready for us and us for them, but it comes down to it being a tough game of basketball and the better team will win,” Odum said.

The purveyor of Play Angry likely agrees. Marshall was asked this week on the MVC coaches’ teleconference if WSU still drew upon Play Angry for motivation.

“We don’t talk about it as much as other folks do, to be honest, I would say no,” Marshall said. “I think [the Shockers] just want to be as good as they can be. They want to be excellent. They want to achieve. They want to win. As a collective group, they all have that trait. It’s strong within them. It’s an easy group to coach in that regard.”